Leaning In -- A Mother-Daughter Perspective

We are a daughter and mother separated by forty years -- a college student and a baby boomer -- who share a common commitment to women's advancement. It is exciting to take part in the conversations stimulated by Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, and we are listening hard for the sounds of change.

Certainly, women need to act on their ambition -- to leverage their expertise, negotiate effectively, and expand their scope of responsibilities. But given how many women actually do aspire to lead, if Sandberg wants to have a profound impact, she must pair her message to women with an emphasis on structural change that eases the way for women already leaning in. And, clearly, there's no one better positioned to push for those changes than Sheryl Sandberg.

Sandberg presents research that confirms that large numbers of women already lean in. In one study she cites, 81 percent of male business students aspire to senior posts, compared to 67 percent of females. In another study of highly qualified professionals, half of the men describe themselves as ambitious versus one third of women. Yes, a gender-ambition gap exists, but that still leaves plenty of women aspiring to leadership who are not reaching the top of the jungle gym.

In Lean In, Sandberg acknowledges that women face both internal and external barriers to power -- the inhibitions and insecurities are the "chicken," while institutionalized sexism is the "egg." "I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg." Sandberg chooses to concentrate on ways that women limit their own leadership. But Sandberg has the access and track record of achievement to influence the nation's most high-powered institutions, and that's the challenge we hope she will take on.

No matter how ferociously women drive their ambitions, they will face barriers in nearly every employment sector. At Yale University, where Emma is involved in the women's leadership initiative, the Admissions Office works thoughtfully to achieve gender balance because of the preponderance of exceptional young women. Yet, while women account for 50 percent of undergraduates they constitute less than 25 percent of tenured faculty. This fall, Yale microbiologist Jo Handelsman conducted research asking 100 male and female scientists to assess pairs of job applications, identical in every way except gender. Female candidates were consistently deemed less competent and offered $4,000 less in annual salary. Encouraging women to negotiate for more pay is necessary; but we also have to insist that institutional decision makers hold themselves accountable for paying equitably.

In the nonprofit sector, where Shifra heads a women's leadership organization, only 21 percent of big budget charities are led by women even as the field is staffed 73 percent by women. The documented reasons include institutionalized sexism, obsolete executive leadership models, and the lack of healthy work-life policies. While Sandberg urges women to aspire to leadership roles, she might also mobilize her colleagues to devise a corporate equivalent to gender-blind orchestra auditions, a systemic solution which succeeded in putting more women musicians into major symphony seats.

Sandberg points out that the United States remains one of four countries in the United Nations without a federal law requiring paid maternity leave. In Lean In, she tells women to "make your partner a real partner" to compensate for the lack of workplace flexibility. That advice may help some women move toward a better division of household labor. But it won't advance the women who never reach the higher rungs because they lack employer support at the most vulnerable times in their working lives.

Sandberg has earned a seat at the head table and has made female leadership central to her public image. Her opinions can persuade Larry Summers, Mark Zuckerberg and the other 479 male CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. Sandberg might begin by insisting on more women board members at Facebook and other companies and might use the power of her podium to amplify the national campaign for paid family leave. She might help transform Davos and the World Economic Forum to become a venue that showcases women and she can help corporations understand that gender equity enhances the bottom line.

From our vantage point as two feminists, mother and daughter, one just starting to lean in and one still keeping on, we urge Sheryl Sandberg to step up and make the most of the national spotlight. As a powerful woman sitting at the nexus of technology, business, social media, and feminism, she is perfectly equipped to use her access and talents to reform institutions and leverage the extraordinary momentum generated from Lean In to move beyond a circle of women to circle the world.